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Teach For Canada: De- or re-colonizing Indigenous communities in Canada?

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Photo: BookBotherer/flickr

As instruments for advancing democratic values, Canada's public schools have an ambiguous legacy. Over the years, many exclusionary and colonialist policies have been challenged, and this shift in cultural values has inspired policies to help make public schools in Canada more diverse and accessible.

It is less apparent, however, that public schools in Canada have come to grips with the historical impacts, and ongoing threats, of colonialism. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said Canada has no colonial history, but a more honest evaluation of the real situation would begin by acknowledging that "First Nations people in Canada continue to suffer from the onslaught of colonization."

Colonialism can be understood as an exploitative relationship of power that, as Asante explains, "seeks to impose the will of one people on another and to use the resources of the imposed people for the benefit of the imposer." While some forms of colonialism accomplish this with force, others use soft forms of coercion, which can be masked by platitudes, and where interactions have the semblance of common -- if not good -- sense.

Teach For Canada (TFC), a plan to recruit and train teachers from university faculties of education, and to place them in high-need rural classrooms across Canada, provides an example of where progressive (faux-gressive?) language is being used to promote a program that will reproduce Canada's historical colonial legacy in First Nations communities.

TFC Co-founders Kyle Hill and Adam Goldenberg say they launched Teach for Canada to "reduce the disparity in Canada's education outcomes," which they blame on an inability to recruit and retain teachers in rural and Aboriginal communities. In December 2014, their website described the project as driven by humility, collaboration, and transparency, and grounded in community values and respect for teachers' expertise:

These Teach For Canada teachers will join us in the summer before they begin teaching for an intensive, community-focused preparation program, designed and led by education experts, master teachers, school and community leaders, and elders. Among many other topics, Teach For Canada teachers will study the histories and cultures of the communities in which they will serve, and they will learn decolonizing and anti-racist pedagogies that can be used in the classroom. Once they begin teaching, local mentors and master teachers will provide our teachers with constant support to ensure that they continue to succeed in the classroom and community.

Hill and Goldenberg intend to kick off a national campaign at university faculties of education across Canada in early 2015 to recruit, train, and place new teachers in select schools in northern Ontario. Their ambitious "long-term dream" for TFC is to have its fellows "at a Cabinet table, sitting in newsrooms, sitting in boardrooms on Bay Street."

Although Hill and Goldenberg have limited experience as educators (Goldenberg spent a summer as a volunteer teacher in Iqaluit, Nunavut, and Hill volunteered to teach in Jamaica and Ukraine) they have been networking and organizing since 2011. Hill previously worked as a strategy consultant and project leader for Boston Consulting Group (BCG), one of the largest private companies in the United States, and one of the world's largest management consultancies. BCG has a "clear agenda linked to corporate education reform," and is behind efforts in several states to "close public schools and open semi-private charters; eliminate collective bargaining rights; introduce merit-pay schemes; heavily promote online learning." Goldenberg, with degrees from Yale and Harvard, worked as a speechwriter and political advisor for Canada's Liberal Party.

Hill and Goldenberg named Mark Podlasly, a member of the Nlaka'pamux First Nation, as chair of the TFC board. Podlasly previously worked as a political adviser for Canada's Liberal Party, and ran an executive education consulting practice that provided educational services for multinational corporations like General Electric and Goldman Sachs. Podlasly currently also serves as a senior adviser on British Columbia's First Nations Energy and Mining Council. Combined with his TFC position, this gives Podlasly the opportunity to merge interests in education and resource extraction while leading workshops titled "LNG 101." It is worth noting that Podlasly has been described as "battling Aboriginal tradition," pushing Aboriginals to overcome tradition and land-based politics in order to realize "economic development as quickly as possible."

Credible problems and a questionable plan

Teach For Canada's basic premise is that Aboriginal and rural communities in Canada lack access to excellent teachers. From here, TFC assumes that a scheme for reinforcing the supply of teachers will have positive impacts on teacher attrition and education outcomes. Both assumptions are dubious, and possibly dangerous.

Studies indicate between 25 per cent and 50 per cent of teachers leave the profession within five years on the job, and that much of this attrition can be linked to inadequate preparation, difficult working conditions, and professional isolation. Within this frame, the TFC plan could actually inhibit the realization of a "stable and well-educated teaching profession." For example:

  • Teach For Canada plans to recruit newly credentialed teachers, and the aim is to place them in some of the most demanding classrooms across Canada.
  • The Teach for Canada plan to recruit and place teachers in classrooms across Canada does not address the need for or value of locally sourced, homegrown educators.
  • Teach for Canada's plan to increase the supply of teachers should not be mistaken as an attempt to improve the working conditions of teachers.
  • Teach For Canada's plan to place new teachers into remote communities is analogous with "teaching as tourism," and may even normalize (or aggravate) professional isolation among teachers in remote communities.

As Joe Bower suggests, TFC is "at best unhelpful and at worst harmful" because it misidentifies the problem (teacher supply vs. teacher attrition) and employs solutions that ignore and exacerbate the factors that drive teacher turnover.

Furthermore, while TFC may funnel more teachers into rural and Aboriginal schools across Canada, these teachers cannot be expected to overcome the deep and pervasive social and structural inequalities that provide the basis (justification?) for TFC's intervention. After all, as David Berliner (and many others) argues, "as wonderful as some teachers and schools are, most cannot eliminate inequalities that have their roots outside their doors and that influence events within them."

It is not apparent that a plan for increasing the supply of teachers will have a positive impact on the attrition of teachers or improve unequal education outcomes. On the other hand, empirical findings suggest that Teach For Canada's focus on the recruitment and placement of new teachers may actually increase teacher turnover in high-need classrooms.

Corporate beneficence and private proceeds

Teach For Canada may be grounded in dubious assumptions, but it has the means to push its way into schools across the country thanks to years of behind-the-scenes work. The support of corporate and private donors has been key.

After an unsuccessful bid for funding through Pepsi, TFC secured the support of Torys LLP, an international corporate law firm that focuses on mergers, acquisitions and corporate finance. TFC has enjoyed years of pro bono support from Torys, including office space and equipment, legal advice, etc. The firm's Toronto offices were the site of TFCs official launch in November 2013.

Hill and Goldenberg continued to draw on the support of private and corporate donors as their project moved forward. American Eagle Outfitters, for instance, donated 100 per cent of the proceeds from their holiday gift box sales to Teach For Canada. Another fundraising campaign saw every donation (up to $100,000) matched by an unnamed private donor.

Taken in sum, Teach For Canada can aptly be read as an attempt to translate educational and social inequalities (public needs) into targets of a "benevolent, yet colonizing, pedagogy of care." Furthermore, owing to the fact that TFC arises from and depends upon the legacy of colonialism in Canada, this reliance on corporate and private funding indicates an agenda that is inextricable from both colonialism and corporatism.

Canadian educators respond… and resist

If colonialism is understood as an exploitative relationship that "seeks to impose the will of one people on another and to use the resources of the imposed people for the benefit of the imposer," then Teach For Canada can and should be recognized as a colonialist intervention. With flowery rhetoric and a velvet glove, the project imposes the will of privileged political insiders and corporatists onto educators, students, and communities whose resources become a vehicle for advancing TFC's objectives and privatization.

In other words, Teach For Canada leverages communities with legitimate needs while foreclosing the possibility of realizing public solutions to public problems. At the same time, it will need to overcome strong opposition in order to gain a foothold in schools.

The Canadian Teachers' Federation, which has been monitoring Teach For Canada, argues in a policy brief that the plan: i) "rests on the presumption that well-meaning individuals from outside can come in to school systems and fix all that is not working;" ii) "fails to recognize the hard work already being done by governments, teachers, school boards and communities to improve educational experiences and outcomes for all students;" iv) "makes fallacious presumptions about how to best serve Aboriginal communities;" and v) "is part of a larger agenda that aims to dismantle and privatize public services including public education."

Similarly, the British Columbia Teachers' Federation unanimously passed motions raised by two locals to oppose Teach For Canada, which it feels represents a systematic attempt "to exploit the vulnerabilities of Aboriginal children … and privatize the functions of a free, quality, public education system."

Looking forward: Inoculation or infection?

The chilly reception from educators has not impeded Teach For Canada. In late 2014, TFC took applications for a director of teacher recruitment, director of teacher selection and support, director of community engagement, and director of teacher development to manage and co-ordinate the Canada-wide rollout.

Promotional material for this nationwide recruitment drive -- "coming to a campus near you" -- graphically illustrates the values beneath TFC's philanthropy. In one flyer a single female, warmly bundled, looks out into the distance, evoking a corporate myth in which a lone teacher, an entrepreneurial hero, parachutes into the wilderness to save the day.

At a minimum, this recruitment drive ought to be recognized as a culturally insensitive scheme that obscures the expertise of teachers (and democratic values) beneath a corporate and colonialist fantasy.

In the final analysis, those who identify with the struggle for a more democratic and equitable vision of public education in Canada have grounds for resisting Teach For Canada. Steps must be taken to engage with communities in a critical dialogue about the factors driving teacher attrition and educational inequalities. Policy-makers must be informed and encouraged to pass policies that support and value communities, not corporations and colonialists.

Post-secondary institutions must take steps to resist the corporatization of new educators and actively contribute to an educational dialogue about the need for public solutions to public problems. Aboriginal and remote communities across Canada can take steps to build bridges with teachers' unions and support their attempts to make public education in Canada more accessible and equitable. Teachers' unions, for their part, need to "adopt a new critical understanding of history," in the words of Mills and McCreary, and actively network with Aboriginal and remote communities across Canada to provoke a Canada-wide dialogue about public schools as vehicles for democratic values.

Tobey Steeves is a secondary teacher and education policy analyst in B.C. His research focuses on the intersections of education policies and the lives and work of teachers. Tobey blogs at http://www.remappingedu.com and can be found on Twitter at @symphily.

A longer version of this commentary, with references, appears in the winter 2015 issue of Our Schools / Our Selves.

Photo: BookBotherer/flickr

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